IT'S A STICKY SUMMER evening and we're up at George's barn. George, a sheep farmer, is our nearest neighbor. When we have a farm question, we usually go to George first. He sees us and waves, comes rumbling over in his giant John Deere.
"You come to look at my new fence posts?" he says.
Now, how did he know that?
"Everybody's asking about these things." He heads over to a pile near the far Quonset hut. "I've got another load coming up from Tennessee. What do you need, eight-footers? I can get some smaller ones, too."
Well, that was easy. And here we were just coming over to start our research on where to buy fence posts. We order two bundles of eight-footers from George.
A blue pickup comes up. It's Joe, the hunter. "Hey," he says, and announces that he shot 25 groundhogs today over at Sergeant's farm. "They got a big groundhog problem this year," he says.
And so naturally we stand here a long time swapping groundhog complaints. George's sheep are ambling by. You hear "baaa" everywhere. Four llamas, chewing and chewing, are watching us, making sure we don't even think about bothering those sheep, which the llamas have been raised to protect. There are tractor parts rusting in the muggy air. There are two cats rolling in the dirt.
There is nothing else here.
The nearest house, our house, is more than a mile away, over the ridge they call "the saddle," because from here it looks exactly like a horse's back. George's house is over the other hill, the one with the sun sitting on top.
There is nothing else here.
I have spent countless hours here, meeting neighbors, learning about the land, swapping weather information and corn facts. I don't really know how George's barn in the middle of nowhere became the central meeting place around these parts. But that's what it is.
When you don't work in an office, you don't have a water cooler to stand around. You need someplace to go.
The farmer everyone calls Jay drives up. He asks if we knew they're coming by to work on the road tomorrow, the dirt road linking all of us. No, none of us knew that. Jay leans on George's tractor while we drift into coyote talk. Jay says he heard that somewhere in Missouri they're infecting coyotes with mange in an attempt to impede the invasion, but now all the dogs in town are getting mange.
George says wool prices are so far down it's not worth shearing anymore. Jay says there's a pill you can give sheep so all their wool just falls out. Joe says, "Deer!" And everyone looks into the distance, but no one sees any deer.
"There's four of them, right there," he says. But none of us have eyes like Joe's. He gets his binoculars out of his truck and hands them to us and soon we are looking, one by one, at four deer far off on the horizon. The sun is going behind George's house, making everything red.
I tell George that once we get some fence up, we want to buy some sheep from him. He says we'll have fewer parasite problems if we put them out to graze on a southwestern hill. Jay says it has something to do with the way the sun hits the blades of grass on a southwestern hill.
I would never have known that. I would never have known any of this.
I don't know how else you could learn the kinds of things you learn at George's. I think about how I spend so much of my days surfing the Internet, and how similar are the random links you follow up here at George's. You wouldn't exactly call these links "hyper," though. These links take time, take trust, and involve a lot of mosquito bites.
"Well, have you opened the fuel intake valves at the top?" Joe says, when we ask about some tractor trouble we're having. Joe says bleeding the air of a diesel fuel line is not as easy as it looks, especially not on a Ford 1910. He gives us more than just the knowledge we need to fix our tractor. He gives us the courage we need to go home and tackle that beast.
There's a lot you can learn on the information superhighway. But there's a lot you can learn only on the information dirt road.
"Well, when you go to put your fence up," George says to us, "remember the road." He explains that, even though it makes more sense to staple your wire on the inside of the post, making the fence stronger against the force of an animal leaning against it, that's not how it's done around here. Around here, you put the wire on the outside of the post, facing the road, because it looks nicer. It's a sign of respect to people driving by.
"Even though no one but us ever drives down this road?" I ask.
"Nothing wrong with respecting each other!" Jay says with a laugh.
George shrugs. "Remember the road," he says. "That's just the way it's done."
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is email@example.com.